When St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley’s political adversaries used a subcontract for the county’s police lab as campaign fodder, the Democratic official saw it as more than just a run-of-the-mill attack.
Dooley said the attacks were part of a racially motivated effort to make him look corrupt – a tactic he said is an effective way to discredit black politicians. He went so far as to call county prosecutor Bob McCulloch a “liar” who played the “race card” and county executive-elect Steve Stenger as a dutiful patsy that perpetuated an untruth.
Throughout the campaign, Stenger and McCulloch lambasted Dooley after a company owned by the then-head of the county police board – Greg Sansone – received a subcontract for work on the crime lab. Appearing in an ad for Stenger, McCulloch went so far to call it an example of “corruption” that was “a disgrace.”
These attacks clearly damaged Dooley, as evidenced by his reaction this week after U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan announced that no federal charges would be filed.
“You know what’s happened over the last couple of years?” Dooley asked. “If you said an African-American elected official is alleged to have done some wrongdoing, and 75 percent of the population is non-African American, what do you think is going to happen? What happened is exactly what happened. I lost in all of the non-African-American townships in this county, which I have never done before.”
Some of Dooley’s critics dismissed Dooley’s arguments as sour grapes for losing so overwhelmingly to Stenger in the Democratic primary. While McCulloch hasn’t responded to Dooley or to requests for comment from St. Louis Public Radio, Stenger said Callahan’s decision doesn’t make the subcontract look any less unseemly.
The subcontract arrangement still fails “the smell test,” said Stenger, regardless of Callahan’s decision not to pursue federal charges against anyone.
“Simply because the matter did not rise to the level of criminal conduct does not mean that it was ethical or the right thing to do for St. Louis County,” Stenger said. “It was a clear violation of the charter. A sitting county police commissioner cannot under our charter accept a subcontract, a primary contract, a general contract – any kind of a contract for any county work. Particularly work for the police crime lab.”
Stenger also objected to injecting race into the matter now.
“It is really unfortunate that the county executive would bring race as an issue into this situation,” Stenger said in an interview on Wednesday. “Here we are. The election is over. We should be in a period of transition, and we should be moving forward. I think that what he’s essentially saying is that he has had no responsibility in the events surrounding the crime lab contract and all the other issues that I raised during the campaign. And I think that’s unfortunate.”
But others suggested Dooley’s words hit a particularly deep nerve, especially as the region struggles to pick up the pieces after months of racial discord. They said black politicians are treated to a different and impossibly difficult standard.
“Being able to throw the word ‘corrupt’ out there sticks a lot harder on blacks involved in politics, rather than whites involved in politics,” said Ferguson Township Committeewoman Patricia Bynes. “It seems to get explained away with white politicians: ‘Oh, there were accounting errors or campaign finance errors.’ But if just enough people start claiming corruption on a black politician without any proof, people seem to take that and run with it.”
Perhaps former state Rep. T.D. El-Amin has firsthand experience of what Dooley faced this year.
The St. Louis Democrat went to federal prison in 2009 after pleading guilty to taking a bribe from a gas station owner. A couple years later, he faced a huge fine from the Missouri Ethics Commission for campaign finance related violations.
In an interview, El-Amin emphasized that black politicians should not “abdicate the responsibility” for wrongdoing. If “we do something wrong and it’s wrong, you take responsibility for it,” he said.
But in his view, El-Amin said, Dooley’s comments amounted to “a subjective claim that has objective credence.” That’s especially the case, he said, “when you look at the history of how African-Americans have been pursued.”
“We don’t operate in a bubble in terms of African-American elected officials and the general African-American public,” El-Amin said. “There are disparities in the so-called pursuit of justice when it comes to African Americans and Caucasians whether we’re talking traffic stops, whether we’re talking about disparities in the levying of fines and tickets. So we don’t operate within the bubble when it comes to African-American elected officials.”
What El-Amin is taking about, said Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, takes place outside the criminal arena. She noted Dooley faced scathing criticism for not doing enough to stop a health department employee from embezzling money. But St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, she said, didn’t face the same type of public backlash after two parks department employees stole money.
“There was one day when Charlie was being raked over the coals on TV about that,” Erby said. “And the same day, the two guys from the parks department in the city were in court. And you heard just a little bit about it on TV that morning that they had just been indicted or whatever – and they were carrying on about Charlie and the health department and blaming him and calling it a scandal.”
“I remember thinking, ‘Huh! Those two guys did that in the city in the parks department and no one has referenced Mayor Slay at all,' ” she added.
For Dave Robertson, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Dooley’s comment highlighted Dooley's frustration that “this exoneration from the feds – and remember, it’s just the feds – came after the primary and after the general election.”
But while Robertson said the impetus behind Dooley’s comments might have been a reaction to his “name being sullied,” he added that Dooley was hitting a deeper issue.
“What it feeds into, as you say, is the racial tension in the St. Louis area and St. Louis County. And I think that’s really unfortunate,” Robertson said. “But at the same time, it raises an issue that has to be added to the issues that people are confronting in our region. Not just criminal justice issues. Not just municipal court issues. Not just different treatment of different kind of people. But [it’s about] political leadership. Many African-American leaders have suggested that their role in leadership in St. Louis County – especially in municipalities – hasn’t always kept up with their share of the population.”
Overplaying his hand?
Dooley said on Tuesday that the controversy over the subcontract may have cost him the primary election, which Stenger won by a 2-to-1 margin.
Stenger disputed that the subcontract issue was decisive. Indeed, he said he criticized Dooley on a wide variety of issues – including an aborted attempt to shut down county parks and a bond issue for a county courthouse.
“We had so many issues that the county executive was part of that we quite literally could not have fit them all into one campaign. I mean, it was one issue after another,” Stenger said, adding that his margin of victory was so "overwhelming" that "there was no question in taxpayers’ minds and in residents’ mind that this is a change that had to happen.”
Had the subcontract situation never happened, Robertson said, Stenger could have zeroed in on other controversies within Dooley’s administration.
“This is the first time that (Dooley's) really faced a (Democratic) opponent who’s very well funded, who is going to run a very strong campaign against him, put up a lot of television ads and really emphasize some of the difficulties that the Dooley administration had faced over the years,” Robertson said. “And there were plenty of them in addition to the problem with the [subcontract].”
Asked on St. Louis on the Air about whether other controversies within his administration led to his defeat, Dooley said: “Anybody who’s in office for 11 or 12, things do happen.”
“Things happen to some of my cohorts – and you well know who I’m talking about – that never came up. That was never an issue,” Dooley said. “But with me, it’s completely different. So what I’m saying to you is there’s a double standard in this community when it comes to certain issues.”
Jeff Smith, a former Missouri state senator who teaches at the New School in New York City, said, "Dooley is likely overstating the case when he says that the crime lab allegation cost him the race" -- especially given Stenger's margin of victory."
But Smith added that Dooley's initial point has some validity. In his words, "black public officials under a cloud of suspicion have a very hard time clearing their name, even if no wrongdoing is found."
"It's not easy for any public official, but given the combination of media sensationalization and voter schemas, I'd say it's harder for blacks," said Smith, who served time in federal prison for obstruction of justice charges.
Dooley's criticism of McCulloch this week have been scathing, but he made no effort to oppose McCulloch’s re-election in either 2006 or 2010. In fact, McCulloch ran completely unopposed both times.
When asked why he didn’t use his political power as county executive to oppose a public official who he felt possessed racial biases, Dooley said: “I couldn’t prove anything – but now it’s all come out about what he stands for.”
“I didn’t know I had any bad blood against Mr. McCulloch,” said Dooley, adding that McCulloch didn’t want him to run for county executive in 2004. “We have never been that close. We just agreed to disagree, OK? So I didn’t know I had any problem with Mr. McCulloch until this year.”
El-Amin said the fact that Dooley made these comments about McCulloch after he lost to Stenger calls into question the “sincerity and motive of when they don’t outwardly speak up on African-American issues outside of election time.”
Bynes and Robertson said Dooley had perfectly sensible reasons to wait to speak out against McCulloch.
For instance, Bynes said: “Prosecutors tend to get in this role of working with the police and beating the bad guys. And that’s pretty hard to work against until you have issues like this case.”
“It’s hard to run against that until things like this become very visible,” Bynes said. “Have there been issues in the prosecutor’s office? Oh my gosh! Absolutely. They have not been high profile enough to make people really start questioning things. And it’s unfortunate that you need something like this, because the electorate is not paying that close of attention on a normal basis.”
Added Robertson: “Every political leader looks at strong fellow leaders and says ‘is it worth tackling this person or not?’”
“All of these things added up and this is a two-way street. McCulloch also saw that Dooley had a position in St. Louis County that seemed viable and McCulloch didn’t raise many questions early either,” Robertson said. “One reason is all this evidence came up that just seemed to add up to a lot of questions about Dooley and going beyond way beyond" that Sansone subcontract.
Some African-American political figures endorsed Republican Rick Stream in last month’s election – partly because of Stenger’s alliance with McCulloch. Stenger said earlier he plans to reach out to those leaders when he comes into office.
But he added: “For those who wish to, like Charlie has recently done, utilize the tragedy in Ferguson as some time of vehicle or a platform that is not for the greater good, but rather for more self-interested motivations, I’m not just going to respond.”
“I’m not looking to inflame those passions,” Stenger said. “It has no place in a county that is truly interested in moving forward and elevating the dialogue. In the first 100 days of my administration, we’re going to talk about how we’re going to address the issues that have surfaced in Ferguson and we’re going to take action on those issues to make some needed some changes. I think that is how you build trust.”
Bynes said she’s also taking action by pursuing an audit of Ferguson. At a time when more African-Americans may run for the Ferguson City Council, Bynes said she’s pursuing the audit because she doesn’t want “new people running into a burning building.”
“When we do come behind white politicians, that means we have to work extra hard and we have to be extra ethical because we don’t know what we might be walking into,” Bynes said. “And this goes into not just the political world, but in the professional world in being black. You have to look at the policies and procedures. Even when we do exactly what white professionals and what white politicians do, we are vilified for it. And we’re like ‘I just did exactly what they did.’”
St. Louis Public Radio’s Jo Mannies provided information for this story.
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.